ORLANDO, Fla. - A Central Florida domestic violence shelter said undocumented victims have been afraid to seek help for fear of being deported or arrested because of their immigration status.
The organization encourages victims to escape their abusers and achieve financial and emotional independence.
An undocumented domestic violence victim originally from Venezuela sat down with Channel 9's Samantha Manning to describe her life in the shadows. She asked to not be identified.
"I was very scared," she said through a translator.
The woman said she started dating an American citizen shortly after arriving to the United States. She said he acted aggressively toward her early on. The verbal abuse soon become physical abuse.
"He would hit me with his hands, with his fingers and he would push me," she said. "When I got pregnant, he locked me in the closet."
She said that was the moment that made her want to end their relationship, but she feared legal trouble if she sought help.
"He used to tell me that he could do whatever he wants because he's a U.S. citizen," she said.
Channel 9 reported in 2009 that an undocumented Honduran woman was arrested in Lake County after she called police because her sister had been attacked by her boyfriend.
But police didn't arrest the boyfriend and instead arrested the woman because of her undocumented status. She was jailed for nine days before federal immigration authorities took custody of her.
Michelle Sperzel, chief executive officer of Harbor House of Central Florida, said the organization helps domestic violence victims obtain copies of paperwork if their abuser withholds documents, such as work visas or passports.
"There's that fear that if I call, I'm going to be deported, because I have no papers," she said. "This is wrong in our country and so this is a human rights issue."
The organization also helps victims find a shelter, achieve financial independence and acquire legal protection.
WFTV legal analyst Bill Sheaffer said law enforcement officers will help victims of domestic violence emergencies regardless of their immigration status.
There are no state mandates that require them to notify federal authorities if a victim is undocumented.
The victim who spoke with Channel 9 said she's grateful she ended her relationship with her boyfriend three years ago. She's now working on obtaining a college degree and is raising her 3-year-old daughter.
"For the people (who) are in this situation, do not (keep silent)," she said. "There's a lot of help."
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